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Is war still possible?

Published on 08 March 2013
Updated on 06 December 2023

(A history of war in two easy pages including an outlook on its future)

Hunter-gatherers only had portable goods. Raiding between such groups was probably for women and children – their main “wealth”. Agriculture led to durable stocks (food and artifacts). Neighbors raided each other for them. Extractive elites emerged to strike a (leonine) bargain with local self-governing agricultural communities: they demanded yearly exaction and offered protection against destructive raids in return. Such elites defended territories congruent with their military skills. They demarcated the territory and destroyed raiders crossing the boundary. Extractive elites battled each other for control of their respective territories – warfare emerged. Warfare was an ordeal about elite property.[1] Subject agriculturalists were quite indifferent to the outcome, even though they disliked the collateral entanglements. Religious ideologies underpinned the elites through sacralization. In the main, extractive elites were interchangeable. They dominated agro-literate polities or even a multi-ethnic empire.[2]


The horse allowed nomads to project power long-distance. First they raided, emerging suddenly and then absconding afterward in the steppe beyond the reach of the sedentary elite. Emboldened by experience, nomads destroyed extractive elites and took over their territories – the Mongols were the best in this respect. Success brought about sedentarization and acculturation. Industrial societies rely on cognitive and economic growth for survival.With industrialization elites merged into a “homogenous world, subject to systematic indiscriminate laws, and open to interminable exploration”: the new society was “morally inert and, on the other side, unitary.” (Pg. 22-23) As industrial societies replaced pre-industrial tributary (and commercial) empires they attempted to redraw the boundaries they found so as to fit the new mode of production. Nationalism and secular ideologies drove the process. It was most bloody. The verdict is clear: economic strength, not military aggressiveness, is the irreplaceable foundation of a dynamic industrial state. Warfare – an industrial society’s attempt militarily to impose its will on another – is coming to an end (even though unresolved conflicts or belated colonial adventures may linger on). Territorial conquest is no longer an option. Only total war may bring regime change about, as it happened in WWII. “Shock and awe” – as a proxy for total war – has failed to change “hearts and minds”. Regime change is effective only from within – as the failure, in this respect, of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown. Globalization accelerates the process. Regional conflicts may still emerge when a country demands special recognition. Globalization has weakened the effective sovereignty and fiscal capacity of some states. “Buying off social aggression with material enhancement” (Pg. 22) may no longer work. Dissolution may loom ahead – this is usually peaceful, if not easy. Unresolved ideological and ethnic conflicts within the state may lead to violence and secession. Traditionally states have repressed secession attempts militarily. Secession is frowned upon in international relations. No multilateral doctrine has emerged in this regard. Emergent dissident groups have fallen back on nomadic tactics in their struggle against sedentary societies. Raids have been carried out against them. They were politically but not strategically successful. Terror is no more able to bring about regime change in a foreign country than a sedentary society. Sedentary societies struggle in their response to such terrorism. For, the foot-lose groups use foreign territories as their base of operations. Received principles of territorial sovereignty hamper “surgical” military operations on foreign soil by the targeted country. Assent and cooperation of the state on whose territory cells of these groups are located, is uncertain. Collateral damage in the “host” country worsens the situation. Any expectation that military expenditures will reflect the profound changes that have swept the contemporary world is unwarranted. Fear drives military expenditure (Rumsfeld’s 1% rule). One may factor in the inner logic of a self-regarding military-industrial complex and the competitive logic of reciprocity. These forces can drive an involution toward a needlessly militarized societies. Danger looms in this respect.

[1] James Q. WHITMAN (2012): The verdict of battle. The law of victory and the making of modern war. Harvard University Press, Cambridge
[2] Ernest GELLNER (1983): Nationas an nationalism. Cornell University Press, Ithaca. „the most striking trait of pre-modern, pre-.rational visions: the coexistence within them of multiple, not properly, united, but hierarchically related subworld, and the existence of special privileged facts, sacralized and exempt from ordinary treatment.“ (Pg. 21)

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2 replies
  1. Biljana Scott
    Biljana Scott says:

    I like the digest, Aldo, and
    I like the digest, Aldo, and the doomsaying envoi: “danger looms in this respect.” I trust it was ironical and that you haven’t yourself jumped on the fear-mongering band-wagon! It seems to me that the earlier stages of the evolution of war co-exist rather than being superseded, given that all the stages you outline are still on offer today: terrorism as a nomadic strike, secession as competing extractive elites, soft power as “buying off social aggression with material enhancement” and North Korea’s sabre-rattling as prospective nuclear warfare, not to mention the hands-off of drone attacks and so-called surgical strikes and the hands-on of green on blue attacks. Do we not simply increase our repertoire? Or do you really believe that we are unwittingly squeezing ourselves into the shoes of the sandwich-board man whose placard warns “the end is nigh” ?

    • Aldo Matteucci
      Aldo Matteucci says:

      Bi, on rational analysis, we
      Bi, on rational analysis, we are down to liquidating the past (a lot there) and then move on to a worldwide society based on Danegeld: aka as “the squeaky wheel gets the grease”. Adaptation and accommodation. Raids for movable assets no longer happen. War – which is about regime change – does not work, for the subsequent graft is rejected. The needs of controlling local conflicts are limited essentially to the protection of key resource points and sea lanes. It looks peaceful enough.

      The first major problem is that once you have a hammer, but no more nails, you fantasize about the worlds being a nail. Nothing is more worrisome than an enormous military-industrial complex that has lost a mission. It will seek one, in the face of a peaceful world.

      The next issues is HUNTINGTON (God bless his ignorance) and his “clash of civilization” between *civilizations” defined as religions. Amb. AHMED for one has just written a book showing that the radicalization in Waziristan, where all the drones fall (and where he worked) is a conflict between the periphery (the region) and the center (Islamabad), where Islamist got involved.

      As a staunch believer in reality I see political and economic reasons underpinning ideology. But even in this respect: these are affrays, and won’t change geopolitical relations. Can’t see Al Qaeda marching down Fifth Ave. or the need to a war machine to stop him from doing so.

      But I’m not in the business of prophesies: I can only show up some of the underlying logic – and hope for the best. Be my guest.

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